Charpai out of fashion

Ashok Sharma
Charpai used to be everybody’s piece of furniture in homes and courtyards, chapaals and dhabas on the highways.It is also called khaat, manji or khatiya.It is generally used as bed for sleeping in the warm regions.The word ‘charpai’ is believed to have been derived from the Persian word’chihar pai’ meaning four feet. According to another interpretation, ‘char’ means four and ‘pai’means feet. The construction of charpai is simple; It has a frame of four vertical posts connected by four horizontal members.This simple construction makes the charpai self levelling. Charpai is woven in many ways e.g.diagonal cross weave with one end left for adjustment as linear members.This helps in controlling the sagging of the bed as it ages with use.Ibn Battuta, the Morrccan traveller and scholar, who came to Delhi to join the court of Turkish Sultan Mohd Bin Tughlaq, was deeply impressed by Indian charpai.He wrote in 1350 A D about the charpai’. The beds in India are very light. A single man can carry one and every traveller should carry his own bed, which his slave carries about on his head.’He describes charpai as having’four conical legs with four cross pieces of wood on which four staves are laid; between they plant a sort of ribbon of silk or cotton. When you lie down on it, you need nothing else to render the bed sufficiently elastic.’
Charpai has a long history about its origin.It is believed to be about 5000 years old. Though its exact origin is unknown, it is clear that it didnot lose its popularity as a bed used for sleeping and also as day bed with the change in times. A glance through Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture tells us that the ancients were very fond of day beds. However handmade charpai with its simple structure is believed to be indigenous to Indian subcontinent.It is believed that as Indians travelled abroad, they took their light cot with them. When the British recruited Sikhs from Punjab for its Police Force in Malyasia, charpai became a common sight in the Malaysian streets. Even the traditional Sudanese bed ‘Angareeb’, made of wood, leather and rope, is believed to be a version of charpai that reached Sudan from India through ancient trades.
Charpai is compact, economical, storable and portable. It doesnot need much space and can easily be shifted from one place to another. It is a part of every day rituals from birth to death, in Hinduism.It serves as a cradle with new born babies hung on it. It is also an important item to be offered at the time of half yearly, yearly or four yearly ceremonies performed by the descendents for their deceased parents and other kins. The fibres used for the cot come from three sources the plants of juncus species (Protoleriy juncea), agave and the twigs of Grewia tillifolia (Dhaman) etc.The plants and twigs are cut and immersed in water for ten to fifteen days when cellulose is dissolved and fibres become loose and are ready for stripping from the stalk. They are stripped, washed and then used. Fibres are spun into yarns with the help of spinning wheel and then knitted into ropes and woven into the cot network. The more twists a yarn has, the hardest it is. People would knit the fibres in their idle times,at night or in the morning and each household would grow some natural fibre producing crop to meet the demand for fibres for the cots. Later fibres from cotton too came to be knitted in looms and used for weaving cot. Women in rural areas use cot for drying grains and spreading cloths.When some prominent person visits, a bedsheet is spread on it and he is made to sit on it. A cot can also be taken to the shade of mango or banyan trees in summer to have a sound and refreshing sleep after hard work in fields or to the verandah to enjoy basking in the sun in the winter. It is ideal to converse while sitting on the cot as eye contact is maintained with the speaker. Besides being used as bed for sleeping, it has other social purposes. It serves as a meeting place for people at the time of social gathering. It is also used to carry patients to hospitals in hilly areas and also to make cylndrical heaps of hay stack/husk of wheat plants.In the days of yore, cot formed an indispensable part of dowry at the time of daughter’s marriage. Cots of various designs and width were woven by expert weavers from the best fibres of Protoleyria, juncea coloured in different colours ahd then gifted to the daughter. The more prominent people would gift two cots-one woven in the planquin style and the other in ordinary, to their daughters.A smaller version of cot called ‘Chowki’ having smaller legs and square members was offered to the guests for sitting. The account of charpai will be incomplete without reference to Amrita Sher Gill whose painting’Woman resting on a Charpoy’in 1940 gave it a new dimension or ‘Khat Sabha’ organised by a national Political Party in U.P a few months ago. There are also certain phrases and omens associated with this wooden item of furniture. For instance ‘Khatiya khari karna’ is a phrase derived from it due to the fact that the cot was placed upright when someone died.It is also considered a bad omen to place a cot upright after dusk.
Thus, charpai is a useful and sturdy piece of furniture and part of our culture.But it is vanishing these days even from the rural households. It has been replaced by iron/steel cots having nylon/natural strips as the woven /strung network. Besides, more and more people are using wooden double beds these days. It has vanished so much from the rural households that many farmers have almost stopped sowing the fibre producing crops in their fields and it is difficult to find people who can weave and string the network of cot these days. But it is gaining popularity in some regions in India and abroad and its various designs are available online and at furniture shops across the country. An Indian returned Australian, impressed by its design and light weight in 2017 has started the business of selling charpais in his country and is doing brisk business. Thus, it has become extraordinary from an ordinary item of furniture.
(The writer is serving as Lecturer in English, Govt Hr Sec School, Thial (Udhampur).